(A post written in 2019 about a typical groundhopping trip Paul put together. Groundhopper Soccer…
Groundhopping at Real Zaragoza
Some time, when your touring or groundhopping in Spain has you traveling between Madrid and Barcelona — or looking for a nice day out from either — stop off in Zaragoza, a city worth a day of your time with a football ground that is a trip back in time.
I knew almost nothing about Zaragoza or its club before I decided to attend a game there. I was on my way from Valencia, where I visited both local clubs, to Madrid — which only takes you through Zaragoza if, like me, you simply try to fill all empty spaces on your calendar with a game. Hey look, there’s a game in the Spanish second tier, Segunda División, in some place called Zaragoza! (And if you want to say it right, go with “tha-ra-GO-tha.”)
My five-hour train from Valencia took me up the coast, through the mountains, and into a very modern train station which made me wonder how appealing this city might actually be. I grabbed a taxi to my hotel and asked the driver what the local club was like. He said they go up and down, and this year they’ve been good, not great. I asked about the stadium, though, and he said “Es antiquo.” It’s old. Excellent.
Now, there’s old as in falling apart, like Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road, whose hosting of Premier League football for the 2023-24 season is now the stuff of media fascination. And then there’s old like Everton’s Goodison Park or West Ham’s old Upton Park: loaded with history and character but out of date and needing to be replaced.
And then there’s old like “The club moved there in 1957, it got some work in 1982 … and they are still there.” That’s La Romareda, home of Real Zaragoza.
A Visit to Zaragoza
First, let’s take a quick visit to the city, which has about 700,000 people and is about halfway on the fast-train line from Barcelona to Madrid — about 90 minutes from each. Its history goes back to Roman times, when it was founded by Caesar Augustus, and there are a few ruins around. It was then ruled until the 12th Century by the Goths and the Muslims, the latter of whom had a major impact on local architecture. Next it was the capitol of the Kingdom of Aragon, which stretched as far as Barcelona. Zaragoza has been part of Spain since the 17th Century. So its buildings, food and culture reflect a mix of all these influences.
Its main tourist area is in the old quarter right along the Ebro River, where the highlight is a cluster buildings that make up a UNESCO World Heritage site, among them:
- Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (above), famous for its artwork by Francisco Goya, who was from Zaragoza. The name comes from a vision of Mary on a pillar.
- The Cathedral of the Savior, built on the site of the Roman Forum and a 1oth-Century mosque
- The Aljafería Palace, considered almost on par in importance with the Alhambra in Granada.
Also of note is the Museo Goya, with some 500 works by Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, Renoir, Manet, and others.
Beyond the somewhat touristy center, the city is a lovely mix of old and new, residential and commercial, with walkable neighborhoods and excellent public transit — like so much of Spain, really. All of this is a short distance from the train station, which means you could, on your way from Madrid to Barcelona or vice-versa, hop off for a day, look around, and catch a game at La Romereda, which is just a 20-minute tram ride or 40-minute walk from the tourist center.
Meet Real Zaragoza
The club was founded in 1932 and had glory years in the 1960s, finishing top-5 in La Liga almost the whole decade – though without winning it. They won the Copa del Rey twice in that stretch. They won another Copa in 1986 and a fourth in 1995; that got them into the Cup Winners’ Cup (now the Europa League), which they won, beating Arsenal in the Final in Paris.
They won two more Copas in the 2000s and were in La Liga for 9 of 10 years, but they have been in Segunda, or Liga Dos, since 2013.
Their big rivals are Huesca, from the same region of Aragon, in the Aragonese Derby . The current Huesca was only formed in 1960 after previous versions washed out; it was 1978 before Huesca got to the same division as Zaragoza and finally beat them. There have been 18 of these games, with Zaragoza leading in wins, 7-3.
Other rivalries with local teams include Numancia, currently a league below them, and Osasuna, a league above them in La Liga.
The main owner of Real Zaragoza, as of 2022, is also the managing owner of MLS’s Inter Miami – but not that one ;-).
Seeing a Game at La Romereda
For me, their stadium is what it’s all about. My first impression on walking up to, and around, it was that if you wanted to shoot a film based on a game in the 1960s, you could just come to La Romereda and not have to change a thing. It got a touch-up for the 1982 World Cup, when it hosted three group-stage games, but otherwise it must be about the same as it when it opened in the 1950s.
There is a little area of bars and restaurants across the street where people were eating, drinking, kicking balls around with their kids, posing for pictures with the mascot — all very traditional and friendly. Las Palmas fans were taking selfies and mixing in with the locals, as well.
It’s an oval, 33,000 seats in two tiers, with plastic seats, wood railings, chipped concrete walls and steps, extremely basic concessions, and scoreboards that reminded me of being a kid at Memphis Rogues games in 1979. It’s awesome.
It was also more than a little cramped. My seat was up against one of those wood railings, and when the seats around me also filled up, my knees were rammed against the wood and my claustrophobia started to kick in. No worries, though: I just grabbed a nearby empty seat. When somebody came along for that one, I just moved again, and nobody seemed concerned.
When somebody came for that one, though, I decided to go an get some space by sitting in the corner with the visiting Las Palmas lot. Plenty of empty seats over there, and nobody would care. Las Palmas were chasing promotion, and hundreds of them were on hand. Las Palmas is from the Canary Islands, so if any hometown fans made the trip, that’s a three-hour flight. And they were having a party over in their, now “our,” corner, chanting “Si se puede” and lots of things which I couldn’t understand but which, judging from the accompanying hand and arm gestures, were probably not, “Thanks for letting us come and enjoy your lovely old stadium!”
It was a good, back-and-forth match, with Zaragoza going ahead on a goal right in front of me after a Las Palmas defender slipped and the Zaragoza player unleashed un cohete (I think that’s Spanish for a rocket) into the back of the net. Later, after a VAR review, Las Palmas got an equalizer on a penalty.
Then there was some really, really bad refereeing. He booked the Zaragoza keeper for time-wasting — normal — and then, when the keeper clapped sarcastically, the ref ran down there, got right in his face, booked him again, showed the red card, and then clapped at him! Shocking. The sent-off man just stood there like a statue for a minute while everybody pretty much lost their minds.
A Zaragoza field player had to suit up in goal for the last couple minutes, but he wasn’t called into action, and it finished 1-1.
The Spanish league won’t let people embed highlights, but you can check them out here, including the ref acting out.
Update: Las Palmas have since clinched their promotion.
Go See Real Zaragoza!
Zaragoza will be in Segunda División again for the 2023-24 season, which just means tickets are easy to get — I paid about 25 Euro on their website — and I think it’s more than worth it as a daytrip from either Madrid or Barcelona — especially if it’s the derby match with Huesca. Get out of the big city, travel back in time, find yourself a seat wherever, maybe sit near the away fans, and have yourself un buen dia en Zaragoza!